Searching to keep the balance in Riga’s “urban tissue”

  • 2011-10-05
  • By Isabel Ovalle

PRESERVING THE FUTURE: As Riga works to save its architectural heritage, it looks for architectural creativity in new construction.

RIGA - When you walk the streets of Riga it is fairly simple to run into dozens of beautiful buildings. With an Old Town declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco, the city attempts to keep a balance between the medieval heritage and the new ways that have changed Riga’s landscape for good, with buildings like the soon-to-be-inaugurated new National Library or the Gertrudes Center.

The Historic Center of Riga was inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage Site during the 21st session of the World Heritage Committee in Naples, Italy, in December 1997. The area of the Historic Center consists of three elements: the medieval Old City, the 19th century semi-circle of boulevards, and the 18th and 19th century former suburban quarters lying outside the boulevards, with a checkerboard layout.

According to the Advisory Body Evaluation, there are several major churches in the Old City. There is the Cathedral dedicated to the Virgin, with its adjacent monastery, that began in 1211. It was largely reconstructed in the 14th and 15th centuries and underwent renovation and restoration in 1886-1906. In its present form, there are elements of Romanesque and Gothic side-by-side with Late Renaissance Mannerism, Baroque, Classicism, and Neo-Gothic. In general, Riga is an architectural boiling pot.

In this state of affairs, architects don’t precisely have a white canvas, but they take a good shot at the challenge to preserve the city’s elegance, without letting it get to be too old fashioned. Janis Lejnieks is Editor in-Chief of Latvijas Architektura and member of the Council at the Latvian Architects Association. He thinks that since 1991, the situation for architects has changed: “Before, the state organized the whole thing.”

“In the early ’90s the state commissions were in charge and did everything; until in the middle of the decade, [then] the new conditions started,” he adds. From his point of view, “Latvia is well prepared, with a school of architects that is 100 years old.”
This architect is sure that “the difficulty to renovate multiple buildings in Riga resides in the fact that each flat has a different owner; this is why it is very complicated to coordinate these actions.” In addition, “the cities are shrinking, the number of inhabitants is lower than before,” so in this context, Lejnieks believes it is necessary to improve the dialogue between the administrations and creative architects joined together in the Latvian Architects Association.

The Latvian Architects Association (LAA) is a non-governmental professional organization of architects. Since its establishment in 1924, it has twice experienced a regime change in the country - Soviet occupation and again independence - and also the change of its status and name. Currently the organization includes about 500 architects that are practising in Latvia, as well as architects of Latvian descent who are practising abroad.

The LAA says that, “respecting the interests of its members, it carries out its activities in the following main directions: maintenance of professional guidelines, cooperation with the state and municipal institutions in the development of laws and regulations governing the sector; cooperation with related organizations in Latvia and abroad, exchange of information and representation in international organizations of architects; supporting of professional education, elaboration of guidelines for further education and lifelong learning in professional circles; participation in administrating the sector upon the authorization by state institutions; testing of professional competence of architects and their certification for practising in Latvia; and supporting of architects’ professional activities, namely, development of standards for architectural practice and competitions, organization of competitions and representation of the LAA on jury panels and expert committees and promotion of the exchange of experience.”

The Association also works for the improvement of the database of professional information and promotion of the information exchange maintaining the database of architectural practice, library, center of architecture-related information; dissemination of professional opinions and strengthening of the status of the profession through professional representation in key consultative bodies and working groups, and organization of professional discussions, annual reviews of Latvian architecture and other exhibitions; and fostering of architects’ social life and provision of support.

Regardless of the work of the LAA, there is criticism to new buildings that don’t ‘match’ the rest of the scenery of Riga, like the controversial Triangular Bastions building on the Daugava river, in the Old Town. Lejnieks thinks that it was not the best solution, “but the positive thing is that you can go up for two floors, and it is the only place where you can see the left bank.”
Other interesting new structures for this architect include Gertrudes Center and the new library. The company behind the construction of Gertrudes Center is SIA Gertrudes Center. The group says that the principal architectural task in this case was “to combine comfortable, cosy offices and spacious premises with shop windows in one building. The premises with shop windows (870 square meters) occupy three floors (basement, ground floor and first floor) and are united together by one staircase, for the comfort of inhabitants and visitors, and a freight elevator is available. The planning and decoration were done according to individual suggestions. These grounds are perfectly fit for shops, banks and other businesses.”

On the other hand is the project of the Latvian National Library (LNB), the author of the project design is the Latvian origin architect, Gunars Birkerts. This professional developed the project in close cooperation with the employees of the Latvian National Library, studying the needs of the library and interpreting them into the language of space, lines and numbers, the Ministry of Culture has said.

In this setting, the Latvian National Library Foundation was created in 1998. This Foundation is sure that the Latvian National Library Project is “one of the most ambitious and spectacular modern library projects in Europe, if not the world.” The project encompasses a new multifunctional information center in Riga (The Castle of Light) designed by internationally acclaimed architect Birkerts, and a national on-line library information network (Lightnet) which electronically links all of Latvia’s municipal libraries with the new central library and academic libraries. During the 1999 Unesco General Conference, almost all of the 170 member states accepted a resolution regarding the venture, in which member states and the international community were asked to give full support for the implementation of this project. The resolution was accepted at the 26th plenary meeting of the General Conference, in Paris, on Nov. 17, 1999.

Ugis Braturkins is the dean of the Faculty of Architecture and Urban Planning of the Riga Technical University. From Braturkins’ point of view, “the years after independence were very challenging; the professionals were very excited in losing limitations. It very soon became clear that with the Western market, there would be more access to new materials.”
From this principle, the dean admits that “It is now not so clear in Riga where the new buildings are; there is not a compact area where the post-Soviet constructions are located.” Nevertheless, he says that there are “two main branches of architecture in Latvia: innovative design and another one, more delicate, related to renovation of wooden houses, very characteristic of Latvian architecture.”

Braturkins believes that there has been a balance between the new currents of architecture and the traditional constructions. In this context, he enumerates several cases of new up-to-date constructions that have been fitted into the Old Town, like the tendency to cover the inner yards with glass.

The challenge for the new professionals in the future, according to the dean, includes the renovation of the university’s campus, which has about 16,000 students, 300 of them study architecture, with an annual number of 30 new architects. “The Faculty is traditionally the smallest among other RTU faculties. At the same time it does not mean that the interest in the studies of architecture is low – on the contrary, every year competition for the right to undertake studies at the ‘Architects’ remains very high,” he says. The Faculty offers different levels of academic and professional study programs in architecture. Thanks to the professional academic staff, it can also offer specialization in interior and landscape architecture.

Regarding the crisis, the dean thinks that its consequences were very severe for architects, especially for those young ones that had just managed to open their own practices, but were forced to close. “Perhaps Western countries were more prepared,” he adds.